Sources of Leadership Power – Are You Using the Right One?

by Erin Bair on March 11, 2019

in Leadership


One of my favorite concepts regarding leadership development is about the interrelated concept of power. Leadership and power go hand in hand. A common definition of power is “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” If a leader doesn’t have power, they probably aren’t accomplishing much.

But there are three different sources from which a leader can draw power. The first, and perhaps the one we think of first, is position power: “By the power bestowed in me as your boss/supervisor/manager you must do X, Y and Z.” It is an authoritarian power that uses consequences – both good and bad – as a way to get you to do something. If you do what I say, you will be rewarded, or at least, not punished. If you do not, well… you might be given a verbal warning, written up, or terminated. I have some sort of authority over you by the nature of my position and from that source I can direct and influence you.

The second source of power is knowledge and/or expertise. Let’s say I have no position power – that I’m just a peer and a colleague. However, if you respect my expertise – if you believe I truly know my stuff – then you will comply if I ask you to do something. Like with authoritarian power, there are consequences, but they are quite different. The consequences here are more along the lines of wanting to “get it right.” If I ask you to do something you’ll do it because you likely believe I’m right that it’s a good way to move forward. If you don’t, you might look bad in the eyes of others. If I have a reputation for knowing what I’m doing, by the nature of my expertise I can influence you.

The third source of power is relationship. Let’s say I have no position power. Like the previous example, I’m just a peer and a colleague, but let’s change the scenario so that I’m not known for my subject matter expertise. Perhaps I’m newer in the organization or my expertise is more general. In this example, if I’ve worked my relationship muscle – if I’ve developed a relationship with you and it is built on mutual respect – then you will likely do what I ask you to do. You won’t do it because you have to or because you’ll risk looking stupid if you don’t. Rather, you will want to avoid the consequence of damaging our relationship. It is from the nature of our relationship that I can influence you.

To be honest, I have little use or respect for position power. That’s not to say that I think there is never a right time to discipline or let an employee go. I just don’t want to lead with that power. If I do, at best you will do what I want when I’m around, but when I’m not? That’s a whole different story. In the long run, position power only works because it is fueled by fear – fear of not being in compliance. Hopefully, I’m not alone in thinking this is both antiquated and ineffective.

Unlike position power, I have no problem with knowledge power. It’s great, but if I use this as my only power source I’m likely going to have mixed success. At some point, someone is going to question my expertise. And it’s probably good that they do, because it keeps me wanting to learn and grow instead of resting on my laurels. Similarly, that power might not have as much currency if I’m successfully building the expertise of the people around me. Hoarding knowledge so that I can retain this power isn’t such a great idea.

That leaves us with relationship power and, please note, by that I do not mean friendship power. The difference is that even if I don’t like someone I’m working with I still have a relationship with them. Ideally, that relationship will be based in mutual trust and respectful communication. There will be transparency, commitment, dependability and accountability. We will recognize that we must work together to achieve our goals. If I’ve built a good foundation with you in my relationship power, I will likely be successful when I draw power from it. It also works great alongside our expertise power. After all, who wants to work with an insufferable know-it-all?

Here at Cascade, our members come from diverse industries and backgrounds. Chances are, we may not be able teach you the industry-specific expertise you need to know to do your job well. However, all of our leadership training is steeped in building relationship power with the people we serve. Whether we are peers or supervisors, we can leverage our relationship power to meet goals, address conflict, and make decisions with the integrity we’d expect of a true leader.

Check out all of our leadership offerings in our catalog.

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